It’s time once again for the weekly Pro Wrestling Top 10 Countdown.
Last week we covered “Celebrity Interactions That Failed”, and I want to thank everyone who engaged with that story, we had some fun conversations.
This week we’re going to over Top 10 wrestlers who stepped up when a main event void was created and became stars themselves. It seemed to be a timely topic with the uncertainty of the AEW suspension situation and this should spark some interesting conversation as well. So, with that, let’s get started.
10. Lex Luger steps in for Sting in 1990
Sting’s rise to stardom in such a short span is a result of two things, Sting’s raw animal-like charisma with the fans, and Ric Flair doing what only Ric Flair could do and getting Sting over in their famous one hour draw at Clash of the Champions I in March of 1988. After that match Sting was beloved by the fans and was putting the effort in to polish his work while he was on the rocket ship to the main event. There was a collision course set up for Sting v Flair at WrestleWar 1990 for the World Title and it seemed to be Sting’s time. On February 6, 1990 during Clash of the Champions X: Texas Shootout, Sting was unceremoniously dumped by the Horsemen. Later in the night he would try to get at Flair while The Nature Boy was wrestling in a cage match by scaling the cage. During his ascent, Doug Dillinger, the security for WCW, pulled Sting down and Sting blew his knee out. To make matters, worse, as he was being helped to the back, Flair would attack Sting not knowing he was actually hurt. This put WCW in a pickle, and their solution was to put the young, brash, and current heel Lex Luger into that spot. He would turn babyface and take up the mantle for Sting. All things considered, Luger did a fine job here and although he wouldn’t win the title in this run, he would get it in 1991 when he turned back heel and then entered a great feud with Ron Simmons. Luger was named the #1 contender to Flair after Luger defeated The Great Muta on June 14, 1991 at Clash of the Champions, but before his match with Flair could happen, Flair walked out on WCW due to differences with Jim Herd. Luger would go on to be at Barry Windham for the vacated World Title.
9. Owen Hart injures Steve Austin and runs with it
This is an interesting topic as this is probably one of the few times that the guy who caused the injury to an established star, also became a star because of it. Sure, Owen was already a made man after his feud with older brother Bret in 1994, but at the beginning of Austin 3:16, it made him hated by the fans since he took Austin away from them. Instead of trying to move away from it, Owen ran with it. He would wear a shirt that said “Owen 3:16 I Just Broke Your Neck” which may have been influenced by Greg Valentine after he broke Wahoo’s leg. Add in the fact that The Hart Foundation was doing some phenomenal work in the United States, and Owen was on fire. Owen would win back the IC title that he lost to Austin in the match Steve got injured at SummerSlam in a tournament and now had a belt and two Slammys to bring to the ring. Austin was still hanging around beating people up and this was the beginning of the Austin v McMahon feud as Vince was pleading with Austin to stay home and rest. Survivor Series 1997 happened, and we all know that story inside and out, and although they never really capitalized on Owen the way that they should’ve, he was still a bona fide heel. Austin would go on to be one of the biggest stars wrestling has ever seen, and although the injury is unfortunate, one could only wonder how Austin’s rise would’ve unfolded and to what degree, had the injury not happened.
8. The New Generation cleans up in 1993
What an interesting time for the WWF between 1991 and 1993. The whispers of steroid usage started in the beginning of the decade and became louder, especially once the government got involved. Allegedly, from a few people, Jerry Jarrett was brought into the WWF to run the company in the case that Vince McMahon went down in the steroid trial (this has been disputed by Bruce Pritchard). Regardless there was a crop of new faces waiting in the wings waiting for their chance and really took advantage of this. Guys like Hogan and the Warrior were on the hot seat so to speak so Bret Hart, Razor Ramon, Shawn Michaels, and even Yokozuna took the mantle. I will always contest that Yokozuna’s run as champion doesn’t get the love it deserves as he truly is one of the greatest “monster heels” of all time. Bret Hart and Shawn Michaels made smooth technical work cool in the WWF, and Razor Ramon played his part to the tee. I’d be remiss if I didn’t also mention The Undertaker stepping up and Ric Flair’s legendary performance at Royal Rumble 1992 when he won the WWF Title. Once this new style took hold in 1993, there was no looking back as Hogan would get a short run with the title in the spring of 1993, but after that the company would belong to Hart and Michaels for the next four years. Sprinkle in guys like Goldust in 1995, and Owen and Austin in 1996, and the WWF main event scene was forever changed. The land of the giants became the land of the worker.
7. Austin goes down, The Rock, Mankind, and Triple H step up
By 1999, Steve Austin was clearly the top man in the wrestling industry, but injuries started to slow him down. The neck injury in 1997 would linger for the rest of his career, plus his knees were starting to show wear as well. According to Mick Foley, once Mick told Vince McMahon that Foley was starting to have memory issues, Vince McMahon told him that he had wrestled his last match. Then Austin went down after he was hit by a car at Survivor Series 1999 (I did it for The Rock), and the team needed Foley. The Rock had already become a superstar in his own right, but Triple H was the blossoming main event player, and he needed an opponent to make him a credible World Champion. Mick Foley would step up once again and the physical, brutal rivalry with The Game morphed the lovable Mankind into the fierce Cactus Jack leading Hunter and Cactus having one of the most underrated World Title matches of all time at Royal Rumble 2000. This brutal street fight would give Triple H the toughness in the eyes of the fans that he needed, plus eventually sent Mick Foley riding off into the sunset. Triple H then moved onto The Rock and Big Show heading into WrestleMania 2000 in a World Title main event that would include Mick Foley as well. At Backlash 2000, Triple H and The Rock would battle for The Game’s World Title and saw Austin return to help The Rock win the gold. The Rock was on a steep trajectory to superstardom, and The Game was now a bona fide main eventer.
6. All of the ECW Roster
ECW is such a fascinating story. Starting as Eastern Championship Wrestling out of Philadelphia, the home audience had grown weary to both Southern Style Wrestling and the WWF gimmick driven product. ECW became a beacon for the disgruntled fan as the company was putting on matches with hard hitting violence and would sometimes cross the line into extreme. As the early 1990s became the mid-1990s, ECW left that line in the rear view and became The Land Of Extreme. The company would feature talent that was either passed on by the bigger companies or just young talent trying to make a name. 2 Cold Scorpio, Shane Douglas, Tommy Dreamer, Taz, Sabu, Mikey Whipwreck, The Public Enemy, The Pitbulls, The Sandman, The Dudley Boyz, and Raven are just a few of the names that the ECW faithful had lifted into cult heroes. ECW also saw some wrestling legends be provided a place to reinvent or reinvigorate their careers, most notably Terry Funk, Steve Austin, Cactus Jack, and Ron Simmons. They also gave a platform for someone who would become widely known as one of the best minds and promos in the business, Paul Heyman. Heyman was a lot of things, but dumb was never one of them. He understood the violence would only get them so far, so he started bringing in great technicians and luchadores as an added layer for the ECW fans to enjoy. Lance Storm, Chris Benoit, Eddie Guerrero, Dean Malenko, Chris Jericho, Rey Mysterio Jr., Psychosis, Jerry Lynn, and Rob Van Dam would lead this charge. ECW also introduced Japanese stars as well, Taka Michinoku, Dick Togo, Mike Awesome, and Masato Tanaka. Eventually the company grew such a following, they would get a TV deal with Spike, but what was supposed to be a lifeline for the company, became a boat anchor as the deal was just a proving ground for the WWF eventually signing with the station. ECW has faded away, but the following of the ECW alumni is still very real today, and we can say what we want about the company, but they did change the landscape forever.
5. Sting goes dark and DDP steps into the light
Diamond Dallas Page’s 1997 may be the best year in wrestling for one person that no one talks about. After spending time in AWA as a manager and color commentator, Dallas would head to Atlanta to WCW but not until he got a taste of the big-time driving Greg Valentine and Honky Tonk Man (Rhythm & Blues) to the ring in his Pink Cadillac at WrestleMania VI. After spending some time in WCW as a manager of the Diamond Mine with The Diamond Studd (Scott Hall) and as a color commentator, DDP got into the ring as a wrestler at the age of 35. After having a lengthy feud with Johnny B. Badd over the prestigious Battle Bowl ring, DDP would be a mainstay on the preliminary scene, but DDP showed steady growth throughout his early career. After the nWo formed in 1996, Dallas was consistently one of the few WCW guys that was getting one over on the powerful heel group while his finishing move, The Diamond Cutter was getting over with the crowd. DDP would get launched up the card after he was offered a spot in the New World Over by Kevin Nash and Scott Hall, but ultimately turned it down by hitting the Diamond Cutter on Hall and sending Nash tumbling out of the ring. In 1997 his star power was put to the test in a yearlong feud with “Macho Man” Randy Savage. Savage would get Miss Kimberly (DDP’s wife) involved in the feud and the feud had some heated and physical brawls throughout the year. With Sting taking residence in the rafters in arenas around the country, DDP stepped into the main event void. Then as the story goes from Arn Anderson, they were sitting in the locker room and AA asked Randy what he wanted to do that night and Savage replied: “I think I want to take the Diamond Cutter”. The rest is history. DDP became one of the more popular members of the roster and culminated in a World Title main event against Goldberg at Halloween Havoc 1998 after DDP won the awful WarGames match. He fell short against Goldberg but would eventually win the Heavyweight crown. There’s no doubt that Randy Savage made DDP a household name and ultimately sent DDP to the WWE Hall of Fame.
4. Hogan gets bashed at the beach and Booker T gets his moment in the sun
Harlem Heat should be in anyone’s short list of greatest tag teams of all-time. The WCW mainstays would win 10 tag team titles, the most in WCW history. Whether it be The Steiners, Sting & Luger, The Nasty Boys, or whomever, The Harlem Heat consistently put on tag team clinics with some of the greatest tag teams ever. Booker T slowly started to dip his toe in singles wrestling winning the television title a handful of times and when he got hurt, Stevie Ray was defending the TV title without permission from Booker T starting an interesting feud between the two. After that Booker was getting some great matches in with Saturn, Rick Martel, DDP, and a legendary series of matches in a best of seven feud with Chris Benoit. Booker T was another WCW homegrown talent that seemed doomed to spend his career in the mid card, until Bash at the Beach 2000. The story is now infamous, Hogan and Jarrett have a world title match that resulted in Jarrett laying down and Hogan walking out. Although this part was planned, the Vince Russo promo afterwards wasn’t, and this ultimately would be Hogan’s last appearance with WCW. Later in the night Booker T got his shot at the World Title and didn’t disappoint capturing the belt beating Jeff Jarrett. Booker T would remain in the title scene until WCW was no more, feuding with Scott Steiner and was the last champion in WCW before the company closed its doors. He would then move onto the WWE and win a few more world titles before heading to WWE Hall of Fame with his brother Stevie Ray.
3. Mark Henry enters a depleted main event scene
Mark Henry’s dominant heel run towards the end of his career is another period we don’t talk about enough. With the WWE main event scene aging, guys like Batista, John Cena, and Randy Orton took the mantle. Mark Henry started a great run as an unstoppable heel that was inflicting absurd amounts of punishment onto his victims. Later known as “The Hall Of Pain”, the World’s Strongest Man set his sights on the World Heavyweight Title and its current holder, Randy Orton. Orton was amid an above average babyface run as champion, but something seemed to be missing. Once Henry dispatched of Big Show, he destroyed Kane, Vladimir Kozlov, and then the Great Khali. After this no one would fight Mark Henry because he was to brutal, but Sheamus stepped up and slapped Henry. The two would meet at SummerSlam which Henry won by countout after crushing Sheamus through the barrier. Later in the month Henry won a 20-Man Battle Royal on SmackDown! to become the #1 contender for Randy Orton’s World Title. These two met at Night of Champions 2011 and after 15 years in the company, no one thought that Mark Henry was going to win this match. Henry and Orton had a brutal contest and Mark shocked the world when he ultimately won the title. Henry retained over Orton at Hell in a Cell, after which Big Show returned and attacked Henry reigniting their feud. This feud had added intrigue as the Money In The Back contract winner, Daniel Bryan was waiting in the wings and was getting help from The Big Show. Henry defended the title against Big Show but Show got the last laugh when he crushed Henry’s ankle with a chair like Mark had done to him. Bryan then cashed in his contract, but it was overturned as Henry was not cleared to wrestle. At TLC, Show beat Henry for the title in a chairs match but the celebration was short as Henry knocked Big Show out, and Daniel Bryan cashed in. This was the one and only time that Henry won the World Title, but it was definitely a memorable reign. Of course, his shining moment was yet to come when he faked his retirement and attacked John Cena.
2. Magnum T.A. follows The American Dream
Magnum T.A. might be the biggest “what if” in professional wrestling history. In relatively short order, he took Mid-South Wrestling by storm, then did the same for Jim Crockett Promotions, and all signs were pointing towards a World Title run in the NWA. Before we discuss that further, let’s talk about how he got over. Dusty Rhodes was embroiled in a violent and hate-filled feud with The Four Horsemen, specifically Tully Blanchard and Ric Flair that actually went so far as have The Andersons break Dusty’s leg in September of 1985. Magnum would get brought into this feud and had a phenomenal “I Quit” Cage Match against Tully Blanchard and ultimately won the United States title in the match. He immediately went into another big-time feud with Nikita Koloff. The two would have a best of seven series and once that was complete, Magnum was going to set his sights on Ric Flair and the World Title. Some stories indicate that Magnum was set to win the title at Starrcade 1986, some people dispute that claim, however, saying Great American Bash 1987 was probably more suitable. Whichever the case was, we will never really know as a tragic car accident ended the career of Magnum T.A. In the fall of 1986. In just two years, Magnum had grabbed Jim Crockett Promotions and the NWA by the horns and seemed destined that he was going to be the next great babyface in wrestling. When Magnum was injured in the wreck, they had to bring police into the hospital and direct traffic due to the outpouring of fan support of their fallen hero. I once had the chance to interview J.J. Dillon, and he told me that the first four people to see Magnum in the hospital were J.J., Ric Flair, Tully Blanchard, and Arn Anderson. They hospital staff snuck them into a back door and let the wrestlers let their fallen friend know that they were there for him. Magnum would slowly recover, and even spent time in WCW as a color commentator. If you ever want to have a great wrestling conversation with a fellow fan, run through the Butterfly Effect had Magnum won the title in either 1986 or ’87. Bring food because it’ll last hours.
1. Hogan goes to Hollywood and Randy Savage wins the hearts and minds of millions
Hulk Hogan was undoubtedly on top of the mountain of wrestling in 1987 after his win against the vaunted Andre the Giant at WreslteMania III. In fact, Hogan was becoming so popular that Hollywood was calling. Sure, Hulk was in Rocky, but this time Hogan was now a household name after appearing on SNL and MTV over the past few years. Hogan would lose the WWF title to Andre on Saturday Night’s Main Event in one of the craziest/best angles in WWF history when it was revealed there were twin Hebner referees, although Ted DiBiase paid someone to have plastic surgery to look like Hebner. Andre was champion for 13 seconds before selling the title to DiBiase. The WWF stripped DiBiase of the title and put it up for grabs in a tournament at WrestleMania IV. Randy Savage was coming off an incredible heel run as the WWF Intercontinental Champion and had one of the greatest matches ever with Ricky Steamboat at WrestleMania III. Due to Savage’s personality, his entertaining promos, and his in-ring ability, the fans fell in love with the Macho Man. Savage would make it to the finals of the Mania IV tournament and would ultimately win the world title after some help from Hulk Hogan helping Randy fend off Andre. Savage had a fantastic title run and even joined forces with Hogan in a team that was dubbed as “The Mega Powers”. Over the course of the summer the two were lighting the WWF scene ablaze until one fateful night. During a match that saw The Mega Powers take on The Twin Towers (Big Boss Man and Akeem), Savage would be thrown out of the ring and landed hard on Elizabeth. Hogan would take her to the back for medical treatment leaving Savage to get destroyed by the monster tag team. After a heated discussion, Savage attacked Hogan turning heel and setting up for their showdown at WrestleMania V: “The Mega Powers Explode”. Hogan would reclaim the gold, but I will say until the day I day that Savage should’ve retained. In my opinion, this win started the “Hogan fatigue” that grew and grew until Hogan’s feud with Sid in 1992 when the crowd all but turned-on Hogan. Savage would stay in the heel spot until 1991 after his match with the Ultimate Warrior in which Savage lost his career. His valet at the time, Sherri Martel attacked him after the match and Elizabeth returned to save him sending the crowd into literal tears.
I hope you enjoyed this last as always and remember to hit me up on Twitter @TStephens91 and @PWMania so we can talk about your moments that didn’t make the list. Also, if you like remembering wrestling from the past while discussing the news, sports, and pop culture from that era, listen to the Filter Free Popcast with myself, Timmy C, and Dolla’ Bill Dave every Tuesday wherever you get your podcasts! I will back next week with another Top 10!